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Professor Yonath gained inspiration from an unlikely source … hibernating bears. EPA/Brais Lorenzo

‘I consider science a luxury’: In Conversation with Ada Yonath

Israeli crystallographer Ada Yonath shared the 2009 Nobel prize in Chemistry for her work the ribosome – a protein-building structure central to life found in all living cells.

Professor Yonath determined the ribosome’s molecular structure using a technique called X-ray crystallography and her work has led to understanding of how antibiotics work as well as new drug targets. She currently heads a research group at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Curator of the University of Melbourne Chemistry Cultural Collection and researcher Dr Renee Beale spoke to Professor Yonath after a public lecture in Melbourne about her upbringing in Israel and how it set her up for a life in science.

Renee Beale: How did your early experiences lead to ongoing curiosity in science?

Ada Yonath: I’m not really sure. My family was very poor and we lived in a rented apartment above a kindergarten, which I attended. My father trained as a rabbi but did not take advantage of his education and my mother’s parents lived on the next block and they were still very religious, so [my parents] were not very scientific. But my mother said I was always asking “Why is that red?” and “Why do we have winter?” and “Why is this liquid more viscous?”

The schools around where we lived – boys schools and girls schools – were good, but did not teach much. They were good for education in relation to life, but not in relation to knowledge.

The kindergarten teacher was also the owner of the house and I was one of 20 children. She actually was great. She told my parents that the education I could get in the neighbourhood was below me; that I was above it.

Her husband was a high school teacher and they both said I shouldn’t spend my studying time in the neighbourhood. She suggested I go to a more modern school but that involved catching the bus, as the school was about five or six kilometres away. At the time, around 1946, there was tension between the Arabs and the Jews. People would throw stones at buses, so they decided I was too young to go on such a bus.

The kindergarten teacher identified nine other kids and she would teach us first grade in the kindergarten, so we would play all morning then when the other kids went home at 12 we’d study writing, reading – not much, but sufficient. At the end of the year she went with me to one of the best schools at the time and the headmaster examined me, and put me directly into second grade.

I still remember her. She was a positive and warm person.

After my father died when I was 11, my mother asked me to fill out some forms to help her. I was shocked – a high school kid had to help her mum to calculate 10% or 8% of something. This really stuck with me, I think. Knowledge and understanding and skills of this nature became important for me.

Renee Beale: Creativity is not usually associated with science by those outside of the discipline, but your research is a beautiful example of this. Can you tell us about your creative approach to crystallise and characterise the structure of the ribosome?

Ada Yonath: Ribosomes translate genetic code in each cell – elephants, bacteria, cockroaches, everything – and they’re the factories that get instructions from the DNA and make proteins. They do this in a fantastic way – it’s immediate and almost mistake-free. So how does it happen? [Before I started my research] everyone knew what ribosomes do, but not how, and that was what I wanted to understand.

Twenty years of research condensed into two minutes of footage.

Very good scientists including Nobel prizewinners – such as Watson who, together with Crick, determined the DNA structure – tried for years to crystallise [ribosomes], and failed. There were papers saying it wasn’t possible and their explanation was because they [the ribosomes] are large and dynamic and have to move – all things that disturb crystallisation, ordered periodic packing.

Here I come, a young scientist with very very little experience, and I say: “I want to crystallise it [ribosomes] and I have an idea.” This was because I had an opportunity to read when I was recovering from an accident – all types of things, including about a delegation that went to the North Pole to see what happens to the [polar] bears when they’re winter-sleeping.

Their side-finding was that ribosomes are very well-packed, like oranges in a box, in the inner side of cells membranes in monolayers. They showed a picture of it and for them, it was just a finding. But I was excited – first and foremost, it was possible! Prominent scientists couldn’t do it, many [others] couldn’t do it, but bears could do it!

I thought: “Why is this so?” Ribosomes deteriorate within a few days, like everything in our life – all the proteins and so on. I thought that one of the main reasons others couldn’t [have success in getting ribosomes to] crystallise was ribosomes deterioration, which may cause structure alterations, they can’t crystallise because of their shape variability – you can only make crystals if the objects are the same.

Tambeko The Jaguar/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Then I thought bears have this mechanism that nature gave them to maintain a large pool of active ribosomes under stressful conditions [throughout winter sleep] so I looked for ribosomes that were more robust, that came from conditions that are very extreme, like hot springs and the Dead Sea, and looked for procedures that extend their life even only by one day. Instead of four days, they exist five days.

[More recently] we identified in all ribosomes an internal region that seems to be pre-biotic [before life] machinery that still functions in our body. Many scientists doubted it but slowly we observed more positive reactions so now when I talk about it they say: “Oh, you want a second Nobel prize?”

Really, it’s not for a second Nobel prize. I didn’t even want to the first one – well, that’s not to say I didn’t want one, but it just wasn’t a factor.

Renee Beale: A career in scientific research can be quite challenging and competitive. What are your tips for early career scientists?

Ada Yonath: I have four tips:

  1. Curiosity. Go after your curiosity.
  2. More curiosity.
  3. Even more curiosity.
  4. Passion. It’s not enough to be curious – one has to really love what one does. For men and women, science is demanding and there are many, many dark periods, low periods.

If we talk about family, one also must love the family. Family is not punishment! When I sit with young people and they say, “You’re a mother and you took care of the kids”, I say: “It’s a privilege.”

Usually on [discussion] panels it’s five men and me and I say, “Family is not punishment. You don’t have this privilege – this great excitement of being pregnant and having a child and taking care of the child.” I look at it as a blessing rather than a problem.

Renee Beale: There are many women who choose not have families to pursue a career. I had my daughter when I was writing up my PhD.

Ada Yonath: You were lucky – I had my daughter in the middle of my PhD! If you want to have them [children] and you want to do science one has to find a way to do it.

If you don’t want family, don’t have a family, and if you don’t want to be a scientist, don’t be a scientist! You have to find a way [to do both if you want to]. Many young scientists ask me “How did you balance?” I never thought about the balance – I took it day by day.

[After my daughter was born] I worked after midnight. If there was a kindergarten for my daughter, I put her in the kindergarten. If she liked it, she could stay there. If my child was very ill, though, it would be very different.

But I cannot sit here and give advice for all problems in the world – that’s my attitude. Maybe because I was so poor when I was a child, I consider science a luxury, and whatever happened was good!

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